1. Where were you born and where did you grow up, and how does that affect how you regard the issues in Berkeley and in your district?
I was born in Plentywood, Mont., and I grew up in Montana and Colorado in rural areas. When I was about 15 years old my family moved to Los Angeles, and when I was 18 I came here to go to school at Cal. The way my youth affected the job I do today is that growing up in rural areas where everybody knew everybody else you’re exposed to much more of a village, family-like atmosphere. And Berkeley has that atmosphere. It’s a relatively small town and I’ve known people here for over 30 years. It’s a place where you can put down deep roots and it’s got a history and I like that about it, as opposed to living in a suburbia that seems to have no past or future: it’s just a place for people to go and sleep; it doesn’t have the strong since of history and community that Berkeley does. Or the pride in the community that Berkeley has in terms of integration, civil rights, women’s rights and environment. It was really one of the cradles of the green way of thinking.
2. What is your educational background, and how did that help prepare you for being a council member?
I have a double B.A. from Cal in psychology and anthropology. So having gone to school in Berkeley helps me understand the needs of the campus community, because I’ve always considered myself a part of the campus community. When I graduated I started to go to work for non-profits like the Center for Independent Living, which had just started. So I was in at the beginning of the disability rights movement. And I was also here as a student for the protest on the Vietnam and Cambodian War. I was involved in city politics a decade before I decided to run for office. I knew many people in the community before I ran and I’ve always been devoted to grassroots community politics. That’s where my roots are and that’s where I want to stay.
3. What are the top three most pressing issues facing your district (4)?
I’d have to say high rents, the high cost of living. So many people can’t afford to live here anymore. Longtime Berkeley residents are simply getting priced out of existence in Berkeley. People were fortunate to get their homes before the rents and the mortgages really skyrocketed. It’s always been expensive but it’s been escalating in the last decade as well. The other thing, besides the high cost of housing, which impacts all the things that Berkeley cares about in terms of its community, is its diversity. The high cost of living impacts the kind of people who can afford to live here: many people of color, lower income people, and other ethnic groups are getting priced out. We don’t want to become a white-bread community. So, you know, our diversity is at stake, and then I would say, because it costs so much to live here, we don’t have enough money to deal with all the deferred structural work that needs to be done. There’s a structural deficit, and by that I mean our storm drains are crumbling, our sewers are crumbling, our sidewalks need work, our streets need work. So, those I would say are the three most critical challenges for my district as well as the rest of the city.
4. Do you agree with the direction the city is heading in. Why or why not?
I would agree with about 70 percent of the direction we’re heading in. There are some differences I have about our direction. I think we’re becoming much more of a top-down government. Decisions are made behind closed doors and with the powers that be rather than grassroots, with the average citizens to help make decisions on how we should run our city.
5. What is your opinion of the proposal to develop a new downtown plan and the settlement with the University of California over its LRDP?
Well, I don’t think we really needed a new downtown plan. We maybe need to update our current plan. We have a very good plan that was written into our general plan and so I think we need to stick to that, not change our plan to order to accommodate the university’s development. We should work with the university. But the university has made it clear regardless of all the planning we do, they’re going to do what they want to do, as they always have.
6. How do you think the mayor is doing at his position? Are you considering running for mayor, and if so, what changes would you try to make?
Yes, from time to time I do consider running for mayor because I feel such a frustration; that’s one of the main reasons that attracted me to political office—which was to empower the neighborhoods. The community-involved government came out of the time when we did initiatives, You got a group of committed people together and you put what you wanted on the ballot. And now we have to resort to that and more and more, like with the landmarks ordinance. It’s shocking to me how the top levels of the government have tried to kick the landmarks ordinance. And it’s been really reinvigorating to see that the community has come to the defense of a vital quality-of-life issue in Berkeley, which is protecting our neighborhoods and saving our historical housing. You know, many rent controlled units are in historical buildings. And the only way you can control the rent controlled units is by rebuilding the structure so that the renters don’t lose their value, otherwise they’re easily evicted at an expensive market rate. So it also has consequences for what I think is the most pressing issue, which is the lack of affordable housing.
7. Has Berkeley’s recent development boom been beneficial for the city? What new direction, if any, should the city’s development take over the next decade?
Well, I think the development has been beneficial, especially for students who needed more housing opportunities. I think that when you get to the interface between the commercial areas and the neighborhoods, more can be done to interface better with the neighborhoods. But by and large I think it has been beneficial in that it’s created more housing opportunities. I think, though, it has left a sour taste in the neighborhoods who had to contend with the ad hoc interpretation of the zoning ordinance and state law. So the surrounding residents of the development have not been given a square deal by the city.
8. How would you characterize the political climate in Berkeley these days?
Old timers are, as I said, willing to work on important issues like preservation. But we need to get more youth involved in caring about issues. So I would like to see more younger people involved with Berkeley politics.
9. What is your favorite thing about Berkeley?
It’s the beautiful environment. That might include the beautiful diversity of people that we have here, people who share the values that I share, which is working for the common good. There are so many people here who are enlightened in one way or another. They’re either brilliant academics, poets, writers, socially conscious attorneys, filmmakers, artists ... this city is filled with people riches. Dedicated teachers. People working to make their communities better. It is a real privilege to be able to live here, quite frankly.
10. What is your least favorite thing about Berkeley?
How expensive it’s become. I would never be able to afford to live in Berkeley if I came here today without any assistance. And it’s getting harder and harder to get subsidized housing. That’s very sad, that people like myself would not be able to live in Berkeley anymore.
Councilmember Dona Spring
Born Jan. 22, 1953
1st elected November 1992